HARKING BACK: Tracing the history of world’s oldest highway

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn March 26, 2017

If you walk downstream along the eastern bank of the River Ravi from the Saggian Bridge, about a kilometre opposite Karim Park there are traces of a set of huge logs dug deep into the banks. This is where one edge of the old boat bridge of Lahore stood.

But more importantly this is where the ancient highway from time immemorial ran. The British called it the Grand Trunk Road while local people called it ‘Generali Saraak’. The Mughals called it ‘Shahi Saraak’. Before them it was also called ‘Sher Shah de Saraak’, and even before those time, starting from ancient times, it was known as the ‘Taxshashila-Pataliputra Saraak’. This is what it is referred to as in the Vedas. Our interest in this piece is about how it kept moving about in, and near, Lahore, and how it was maintained.

When the Viceroy of India, Lord Dalhousie, in 1855 called the Grand Trunk Road the “great veins of the Empire”, he was well aware that for further military exploits, or economic plunder being taken to an art form, this world’s oldest highway had to be upgraded immediately. The year was 1856 and in February of that year the directors of the East India Company passed a massive public works programme budget.

Naturally, the money was raised from the local population, but that is a different story of plunder and loot that saw Britain rise as a rich country as our lands withered into perpetual poverty. So the highway and the railway combined to give the East India Company an edge in mobility to exploit and conquer.

Surely this amazing road is the world’s oldest highway that begins from one edge of the former British Empire from Chittagong, now in Bangladesh, and ends at Kabul in Afghanistan. But then this road existed from ancient times, and surely was in place during the Harappa Age. It linked the edge of South Asia to the trade routes of Central Asia.

We know from ancient manuscripts that this road existed in the reign of Chandragupta Maurya when he ruled over his empire which included Lahore. Earlier when Alexander of Macedonia came to the sub-continent he used this highway to reach Bhera before being finally subdued by the Puru of Bhera. Portions of that highway can be seen still near Rawalpindi near the Nicholson pillar, which the Greeks tried to upgrade.

According to the Greek historian Megasthenes, who lived as a diplomat in the Mauryan court, the emperor had an entire ‘army’ constantly looking after the road. Mobility and exploitation invariably go hand in hand. It depends on intent.

This ancient highway was upgraded by Sher Shah Suri to help him move swiftly from one end of his empire to the other. This was the beginning of the ‘Daakwalli Saraak’ as it was then called. In relative modern times this was the beginning of what was known in America as the ‘Pony Express’. Sher Shah built at every ten ‘kos’ a watchtower, or ‘minar’, which served as ‘caravanserai’. At these points horse riders rested and refreshed themselves, and changed their tired horses to move their documents swiftly to its destination.

In those old times a document from Kabul to Delhi took just five days, which was an amazing feat by even modern standards. The Mughals tried to improve on this, and the early British rulers further refined this facility till by 1857 they installed telegraph service. That spelled the end of this service.

If you look along the GT Road at Mughalpura you can still see two old ‘minars’ standing. Along the road to Peshawar from Lahore there are still about 11 left. On the Pakistan Railway premises near Mughalpura there is still one ‘minar’ standing. However, in India they have now preserved a lot of them under the Antiquities Act.

Sadly, during the Sikh era this road was neglected out of the fear of Maharajah Ranjit Singh that his enemies would use it against him. To him such a position made sense as his forces were mostly irregular cavalry that moved fast across any terrain. That in a great way helped him gain power against conventional forces, and in a way helped him keep the British at bay.

The British paved the road westwards till Kabul in their ‘Great Game’ strategy, and eastwards to the border of Burma till Chittagong. We have writers romanticising about the Grand Trunk Road, and in Rudyard Kipling’s famous novel ‘Kim’, it is the centrepiece of the plot. He writes: “To me the road is like a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world”.

So it is that this amazing ‘highway of life’ touched Lahore over the ages. Its location in and around the city changed with time. What we do know from the Mughal era records is that as the River Ravi curled around the city walls heading southwards, this road also moved next to it. By present-day parameters it moved from near the present railways station, moved along Landa Bazaar as we know it now, went around the walled city over what is today the Circular Gardens and moved to the south towards Sanda opposite the present location of the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences and moved inwards towards Karim Park and to the edge of the river.

At this point a boat bridge existed, which then continued on the now virtually unused portion of the road to Sheikhupura, only to dramatically move to the north and join the westward alignment from Shahdara. If you stand on the eastern bank you can even today see palm trees, almost similar, on both sides of the old boat bridge.

The coming of the railway line from Amritsar to Lahore meant that the major Mughal monuments had to be knocked down and the straight line saw the rail bridge at the edge of what we today call Ravi Road. Hence the Grand Trunk Road acquired a straighter alignment and the entire ancient road from opposite Karim Park and Begumpura ceased to be part of this ageless highway. The new alignment was to the north of the Lahore Fort and straight onto next to the Ravi Railway Bridge, along which the highway moved.

But what is most missed are the amazing watch towers that existed at every ten ‘kos’. Naturally, the telegraph ended the oldest ‘pony express service of the world, and the new motorways have replaced the old highway. But then can the ancient GT Road be replaced or its romance lost forever? My hope, and educated guess is, that with time its charm will grow as we learn to appreciate the amazing history of the world’s oldest highway.


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